Guest Post: Swimmin’ Back to Africa

I am so grateful for the poetry here, and the company.  What a densely beautiful sampling of Debra’s discoveries, over time, through her own family, her husband’s, and help from Nana Selma.

We are all swimming in the same waters, of course, and we tire or lose our way and hang on to something so that we can catch our breath – and catch a glimpse of others heading home. – Lorene


I now know her birth name: Rena Mae Clay.  I do not yet know how my mother became a Brown, or how grandma went from seven-year-old Rena M. Clay on a farm in Tennille, Washington County, Georgia with her parents, Charlie and Hagar Clay – as evidenced by the 1910 Federal U.S. Census – to carrying a social security card that named her Marena Harris upon her 1981 death after several years of symptoms of senility, increasingly painful arteriosclerosis, and a briefly broken arm in the three-story row home in which I lived with my parents and siblings in the Germantown section of Philadelphia.  What I do also know is that a day trip to Trelawny, two-and-a-half hours away from my mother-in-law’s Spanish Town, Jamaica home where I had traveled with my husband so that he could assist his mother in obtaining a government required TRN (taxpayer registration number), and my simultaneous reading during the nine-day vacation of the efforts of Nana Selma (If Sons, Then Heirs) to preserve the land rights of the Needham family heirs, has brought me to this place of trying to trace myself black and back to Africa.

I had been to Georgia, only armed with the excitement, anticipation, and curiosity that comes with the week-long vacation of a twenty-something-year-old on a first-time flight from Philly, with Gloria, my best friend since seven and Gloria’s older sister, Cheryl. My fleeting thought when I landed in Atlanta, before heading over to Peachtree Plaza or Peachtree Street or Peachtree Avenue, was: Mom was born somewhere in Georgia.  Even though I had seen and loved the mini-series, Roots, a few years before, I had not wondered whether a Kunta Kinte or Kizzy might be found in my family of clearly “colored” people on my mother’s side.  But now, with only five days remaining on a free fourteen-day trial membership on, I may have discovered that grandma Rena Mae Clay became the widowed Rena Harris, before the birth of my mother; and that she may have roomed in the Maryland home of a Negro woman, before arriving in Philadelphia.

Differently than the twenty-something-year-old emotions I carried on my Georgia vacation over a quarter century ago, on my next trip I will be armed with the excitement, anticipation, curiosity, and glorious memories of the Trelawny visit complete with the behind-the-house gravesite of my husband’s grandfather, a concrete slab marking his existence, and my older and wiser fifty-four-year-old self listening to Nana Selma’s voice in my ear saying: I been swimmin since time began.  One day I’m gonna swim back to Africa.


Debra Powell-Wright is a published poet, spoken word artist, and first-time blogger.  Her essay, Four Women–For Women: Black Women All Grown Up, is featured in the Carol E. Henderson anthology Imagining the Black Female Body.  Recipient of the March 2011 Leeway Foundation Art & Change grant, Debra anticipants publishing a collection of short stories and poems written by women of color, from residents voluntarily relocated from Philadelphia to temporary residents of a Philadelphia shelter.  To promote her collection, Debra plans to follow the tips of fellow blogger and author Tina Smith-Brown, who is also one of the contributors to For Women: A Tribute to Nina Simone.

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